What Constitutes a “Good” Common Application Essay, Anyway?

A student just told me that he’d written a great essay for his Common Application. “Great?” I said. “That’s a bit hyperbolic, no?” He looked nonplussed. I wasn’t sure if his confusion was over my using the word “hyperbolic” or because I was questioning his greatness. Regarding the latter, I always advise students not to shoot for great. In 650 words, with a goal of expressing a clear point-of-view and an infectious tone-of-voice, I recommend that students write a “good” essay. As in solid. As in cogent and entertaining.

A First Line That Hooks the Reader

Narrative “pull” is what’s lacking in most of the first essay drafts I read. There’s no tension propelling me forward, urging me to read on. Here’s a sample first line that I worked with a student for many drafts to achieve: I hate reading. This statement grabs or hooks the reader with a negative that the writer turns into a positive throughout the body of the essay. The student hates reading because he has dyslexia and reading is hard for him. But he loves learning so he’s taught himself how to read in order to satisfy his passion and his career goals. Here’s another example of a winning first sentence: A ghost used to live in my room, but I kicked her out. This line took some time to a) tease out of the student and b) unpack. Once the student explained that she herself used to feel like a ghost, a dead person, and that when she discovered singing in middle school, she felt alive, I understood the ghost metaphor. I suggested the young writer devise a first line that set up that conceit. Both of these students were offered spots at their top-choice schools.

Illuminate Your Reader

All readers, particularly admissions deans who have thousands of essays to pore over, welcome writing that teaches them about a concept, a place, a tradition that they haven’t learned about before. To have your mind stimulated is refreshing for deans with application season ‘tired eyes” syndrome! One student taught me about Nowruz, a Persian New Year’s tradition that her family in Iran celebrates. Another depicted what a soccer hat-trick was. And yet another showed me how to portage by narratively taking me on a canoe trip in Canada. I encourage students to ponder all that they know; they know quite a bit. I then urge them to choose subject matter that might seem mundane to them but thrilling — and educational — to a reader.

Think Journey vs Destination

I recently suggested that a student worry more about amusing the reader than about how she was going to end her essay. This comment paralyzed her. Before she’d even brainstormed a topic or devised an outline, this student was fixated on her essay’s closing paragraph. “Take me somewhere,” I said. She said she couldn’t until she knew where we were going! I asked her a question: Have you ever been on a road trip? Yes, she said, to drop her older sister at college. When she said that line, she teared up. “It was the worst day of my life,” she said. “I miss my sister so much.” Her essay is addressing Prompt 2, lessons we learn from overcoming an obstacle. The absence of her sister at home has been very difficult for this student and has made applying to schools for herself very difficult. She just showed me a draft of her essay. It’s on the way to being “good.”

To registrar for a Common Application Essay 1:1 Virtual Boot Camp or for information about College Counseling/Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at Elizabeth@eecollegecoach.com or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog and Facebook page.